Latin American and Caribbean feminist social movements rise up for women’s lives
by María Emilia Durán García (Afro-Venezuelan woman, Feminist Activist)
In the 20th century, feminism took place in the United States and Europe as a political fight to recognize the civil rights of women in those countries. Nonetheless, the women in the so called “developing” countries continued to face very different conditions, in particular, due to the economic and political relations imposed upon them by the existing colonial societies. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the feminist and women 1’s social movements have strengthened in the last decades based upon political reflection on what it means to be “feminist” and exist “in the margin” of the global capitalist order. The Latin American feminist agenda stands out today in the fights of women farmers, workers, indigenous, Afro-descendant, migrants, and workers of the home against patriarchal capitalism and for that other world that is possible. The questions – What does it mean to be a woman in this continent? And above all, What are its consequences – echo today in the actions of these movements.
A glance at the feminist and women’s social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the past few decades represented in general a period of economic growth. This allowed the improvement in the living conditions for the majority of the population and an expansion in the legal framework recognizing women’s rights: the elaboration and implementation of laws for a life free from gender based violence, recognition of the political and economic participation of women in the state, the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights. These great advances improved the overall situation of women at the continental level.
However, this has been able to sustain itself for just a short time. The current economic crisis threatens to turn to a new neoliberal order characterized by the precarization of labor, the feminization of poverty and the displacement from ancestral territories for the extraction of natural resources such as oil, gas, minerals and water. These problems have endangered the lives of many women, in particular, those that have been historically excluded: indigenous, Afro-descent, farmer, urban poor, lesbian, transgender and transexual women, all those that don’t fit into the model of the white, occidental bourgeois woman.
In this general scenario, feminist and women’s movements in progressive countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have proposed the construction of a socialist feminism which would focus on the expansion of the rights and the recognition of the social, economic, political and cultural diversity that characterize these societies. According to the activist Gioconda Mota, the result is the practice of a popular feminism that is “anticapitalist, anti-imperialist and antipatriarchal, that is accompanied by and accompanies the indigenous, Afro-descent, ecological, sexual and gender diverse, student and worker struggles in order to reach the true practice of equality 2.”
The popular feminism is a political banner of social movements to reclaim social justice and the fulfillment of the rights of all those sectors historically oppressed, especially women that are faced with those problems that continue endangering our lives. These movements can be found across the region:
Mexico: sexual violence and femicide as crimes “tolerated” by the state have mobilized hundreds of women’s organizations across the country to counter the silence of Mexican society towards these crimes.
Central America: the remnants of the armed conflicts of the 80s and the forced migration towards other countries in the region have turned these territories into spaces of great danger for women. The struggle for natural and ancestral territories have cost the lives of social leaders such as Berta Caceres (ecologist and indigenous Honduran).
South America: the struggle that stand out in this region are those for the recognition by the state of sexual and reproductive rights, in particular the decriminalization of abortion, and the promotion of social and socialist economies that transform both unequal relations and the struggle against extractivism as a capitalist model exploiting nature.
Caribbean islands: similar to the rest of the region, the problem of violence against women is overwhelming. Nonetheless, Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has completely legalized abortion, a great advance in sexual and reproductive health to its women.
This scenario creates a state of economic, social and political violence that threatens women specifically. Over our bodies, cross multiple forms of oppression connected to our reproductive and our ethnic-racial and social class identities. These oppressions are connected to women’s designation within capitalism as biological reproducers, caretakers of family and community and nonsalaried workers. This is what many feminists refer to as “triple exploitation” (biological, social and economic). This exploitation has resulted in the discrimination against the majority of women in Latin America and the Caribbean that still don’t have the same access to education and the labor market as men.
Women’s economic struggles against capitalism
In Latin America and the Caribbean, capitalism has historically functioned as a system that exploits the extensive nature contained within its territories. The principal economic, social, geopolitical and environmental problem that creates this exploitative process is extractivism as an economic logic based on the acquisition of natural resources (gold, diamonds, carbon, wood, water, gas and oil) from forests, jungles, plains and seas.
The results of the current capitalism are conflictive especially where transnational companies are present. These zones have experienced an increase in the displacement of indigenous, Afro-descent and farmer communities to urban areas due to the great contamination of arable land, through water and air. This has brought back to the table the discussion around the social, economic and political inequalities that form the structures of the cities. For example, the “informal economy” is composed mostly by the urban poor, in particular, women, as they are the “reproducers of care of the family and community,” a title they’ve inherited from patriarchy and extractivist capitalism.
The inequalities in the labor market are notorious. There still persists discrimination in terms of salary and recognition of maternity. In addition, care work is not recognized in the national economy. By care work, I refer to the time ta women dedicate to the care of their families and of others 3. Capitalist economies in ignoring the care of families and communities as the base of capitalist productivity, also ignore the contribution of women’s efforts in “national economic development.”
In the last decade in Latin America, there have been important organized efforts for the economic recognition of home workers, previously referred to as “housewifes,” and their inclusion in the pubic systems of social security and labor laws. Venezuela and Ecuador have been at the forefront of this (elaborated further down in the article). Rural women, on the other hand, continue to fight for the preservation of their territories and their forms of local social economies. On March 3 of 2016, the Honduran indigenous leader Berta Caceres was assassinated by the companies pushing for a hydroelectric project with the tacit support from the government. She had managed to stop the hydroelectric project that would have contaminated the Gualcarque River, a sacred river for her Lenca indigenous community.
“Not one more: We want us alive”
One of the reasons that has most motivated the current surge of feminist and women’s social movements have been the femicides 4 across Latin America in the past two years. Through femicide, women are represented as the objects of another: the husband, family, church or the state. While superficially she is her own, she can be disposed of in any form. The idea of private property not only over goods, but also over territories and the bodies of women (especially those most impoverished by their social condition and racial and ethnic identity) is key within patriarchal capitalism. It minimizes the recognition of their rights, including the right to life. While these impacts have made femicide visible as a problem inherent in Latin American societies in which the majority of women live in inequality, it hasn’t necessarily meant a radical change towards its eradication at the state or societal level.
Although there are fewer official statistics due to the discrimination that persists in the public systems of justice, according to CEPAL, in 2014, 2089 women were victims of femicide in the 25 countries in the region 5. According to the media source Telesur 6, out of the top 25 countries for femicide, 14 of them are in the region. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest rates in the planet with Argentina and Mexico also having alarming figures.
A recent case that has mobilized women took place in Guatemala on March 8 of 2017 during the International Day of Working Women. 40 girls locked up in a shelter were burned alive for denouncing their guardians for physical, psychological and sexual abuse 7.This multiple femicide became a new slogan to denounce Latin American institutions that in the majority of cases ignore the violence covered in their laws. Thus, women’s rights (especially those with less access to the legal system due to race, ethnicity and class) to a life free from violence is not defended.
In each country, public rallies and permanent feminist activist campaigns have formed around the slogan “Not one more: We want us alive.” This slogan has mobilized social organizations of urban, indigenous, Afro-descent, working, farming, student, artist, pro-decriminalization and the legalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, lesbian, transgender and transsexual women to take over the streets and reclaim public politics to achieve a life free from violence, including the formation of judicial systems free from the current dominant sexist approach to these cases. In particular, this would involve the recognition of femicide as a social problem associated with patriarchal and racist capitalism.
Fighting against the threat of a return to conservative and neoliberal governments:
After conservative Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina’s presidential election (December 2015) and the reinstatement of a de facto state that negated the democratic mandate of President Dilma Rousseff and placed into power Vice President Michel Temer, these two most important economies in South America along with Paraguay, Peru and Colombia have started a continental campaign of defamation and hostility against the progressive governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba by means of private media such as CNN and regional organizations such as the Organization of American States or Mercosur 8. The attacks have particularly focused on Venezuela.
Domestically, Venezuela is experiencing a social and economic war. Its population is faced with the privatization of access to basic food and medicine by Venezuelan companies. One of the places this economic war started in was with the disappearance of primary goods for women such as sanitary pads and diapers for babies. It then expanded to include food. Since women are in charge of food in their families, they have been the most impacted by the long lines to acquire food at “more reasonable” prices assigned by the national government 9. The war has extended to medicine such as anticontraceptives (pills, patches and injections) that have disappeared or can only be attained at exorbitant prices creating great anxiety among women.
Since 2010, Venezuela has had the highest rates of teen (15 to 19 years of age) pregnancy in South America. The feminist movements have an agenda for the construction of socialist feminism that includes recognition and political parity for women, labor equality, politics of empowerment over sexual and reproductive rights such as the decriminalization of abortion, sexual education and access to anticontraceptives. In addition to this feminist agenda, women have been key in the community organizing to guarantee the distribution of food in the popular neighborhoods and rural areas through the Local Committees of Supply and Production (CLAP in Spanish) facilitating the distribution of food at a low cost.
In the case of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno’s victory against the right-wing candidate and banker Guillermo Lasso has achieved a popular victory that promises to continue improving the lives of the population and possibly that of Ecuadorian women. The Citizen’s Revolution (2007) dignified the lives of many women through the creation of social programs protecting maternity and sexual and reproductive rights, incentives for the return of migrants, the creation of the National Council for gender equality, the recognition of work at home in the public system of social security, the promotion of political parity in popular elections. Currently, feminist and women’s movements in Ecuador are reorganizing their agendas to propose to the new president and legislature an open discussion over the most alarming problems such as the criminalization of abortion that affect women in particular those in the popular and rural sectors.
Finally, this March, there was a discussion in Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly about the approval of a bill that would further decriminalize abortion. In addition to rape, incest, threat to a mother’s life, the bill would allow abortions for pregnancies less than eight weeks in cases where: the fetus is unviable, the mother is a girl or an adolescent, the mother finds herself in extreme poverty. If approved, this law would become a model at a continental level for women’s right to choose over their own bodies. It would be particularly meaningful given Bolivia’s great indigenous majority which has bore the great historic weight of colonialism and religious thought as well as the great social mobilization of women that are reclaiming social and political participation and the recognition of their rights in the Bolivian Revolution.
The struggles of women are not simply women’s problems. Social, economic and political inequality in Latin America is the product of centuries of colonial and capitalist exploitation. While popular struggles by the people have clearly reduced these inequalities, the classist, racist and sexist models of state and society continue to make vulnerable the lives of women, workers and farmers. Confronted with such violence, we must continue to call for organizing from below, from our ancestral communities, peoples and territories. Defending the peoples of Latin America is also defending that other world of dignity and social justice that is possible.
Note: In order to promote the intercourse between feminist and women’s social organizations across the continent, many organizations have turned to cyber activism and to the use of the internet to generate spaces of formation and debates about all of the problems proposed in the article and others of equal interest. I share with you the websites where you can get much more recent information about the region.
Venezuela: The feminist spider: http://encuentrofeminista.weebly.com/
Venezuela: Tits in revolution: Network of collectives for the welfare of life: https://tetasenrevolucion.wordpress.com/
Ecuador: Vivas nos queremos platform: http://www.vivasnosqueremosec.tk/
Ecuador: Foundation of Social Studies, Action and Participation: http://www.fedaeps.org/
Bolivia: Women creating: https://www.mujerescreando.org/
Cuba: Cuba possible: https://cubaposible.com/ultimos-apuntes-polemica-aborto-cuba/
- I would like to establish the difference between feminist and women’s movements. Not all women subscribe to feminist political theory about domination based on a patriarchal, neocolonial and capitalist system. In addition, not all feminists claim themselves “women” as they view it a social construction imposed upon the female gender. Nevertheless, in this article I will refer to feminist movements as the feminism of movements that above all include those women that have been historically excluded.
- Mota Gutiérrez en Laprea, 2014, http://www.albatv.org/Haciendo-feminismo-popular.htm
- The feminist Silvia Berger (2014) states that the feminist economy reveals and criticizes the male centric bias of the economy and defines the economy much more broadly by paying fundamental attention to the activities historically made invisible carried out by women. In this way, it redefines the concept of work. It differentiates the market (outside of the domestic sphere) oriented activities as indispensable for the reproduction of domestic work, (unpaid) care and production for self-consumption. The domestic dimension, apparently invisible of female work, conceals an important aspect of the female contribution to economic activity of the production of well-being in society by providing goods and services beyond the market. In considering female work as a fundamental macroeconomic aggregate, it proposes a new paradigm that situates the work of care as a determinant aspect of the reproduction of the social and the conditions for life in the population and recovers women as economic agents exposing at the same time the relations of gender as social relations of power. Berger, Silvia (2014). “Economía feminista y crisis desde América Latina”. En Del “vivir bien” al “buen vivir” entre la economía feminista, la filantropía y la migración: hacia la búsqueda de alternativas, Alicia Girón (Coord.): 67-90. México: Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México.
- Femicide is understood as: “the violent death of a woman due to her gender whether it take place inside the home, a domestic unit or in whatever interpersonal relationship in the community, by the hands of whatever person, or whether it be perpetrated or tolerated by the state and its agents either through its action or inaction.” CEPAL (Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe). 2016. Autonomía de las mujeres e igualdad en la agenda de desarrollo sostenible. http://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/40633/4/S1601248_es.pdf
- Ibid (2016, 114).
- “Feminicidio en América Latina”. TELESUR, 5 de julio de 2016. http://www.telesurtv.net/telesuragenda/Feminicidio-en-America-Latina-20160705-0027.html
- Guatemala: desolación en familias de niñas quemadas en albergue. TELESUR, March 19, 2017. http://www.telesurtv.net/news/Guatemala-desolacion-en-familias-de-ninas-quemadas-en-albergue-20170319-0021.html
- Mercosur is made up of Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Brasil y Venezuela.
- The government fixes reasonable prices to combat the inflated prices of private supermarkets.